Our book club met last night to look at Muriel Spark’s novel Memento Mori. The book’s about a group of old people who keep being rung by a mysterious caller. The voice on the other end of the phone tells them ‘Remember you must die’, causing a range of reactions. I was probably the only one in the group who unreservedly enjoyed reading it. Many reasons were given for disliking it but I think the principal reason was that the book deals with death and most people don’t like thinking about that subject. The result was that even though the novel has a wonderful array of eccentric characters, even though the plot is turbo-charged, even though the dialogue is by turns hilarious and chilling, most of those in our group had a response that was at best lukewarm. Their preconception of what reading a novel about death would be like eclipsed the actual experience.
I thought of that this morning as I read a review of The Big Fellah, a play just opened in London. It’s about Irish republicanism and The Guardian’s theatre critic Michael Billington, in the final paragraph of his review, makes the statement “Irish republicanism is wreathed in myths”. Hardly an original declaration. In fact, Irish-nationalism-as-myth is a view so often stated it’s hardened into fact and is even shared by a considerable number of Irish people. You want irrational, myth-wrapped political violence? Come to Ireland.
Sorry, chaps. Not so, or certainly not uniquely-so. Go to the graves of Allied soldiers in Normandy. Visit the Kennedy graves in Arlington Cemetery. Watch on TV the Edinburgh Tattoo or Remembrance Sunday services. Every country weaves myth around its military exploits, transforming them from terrible blood-letting into self-sacrifice, courage and heroism. So to select Irish republicanism for the award of Unique Weaver of Self-deluding Myth, as Billington lazily does, is misleading, and it’s a preconception that warps the view of individuals and events here. You see it in unionist response to the prospect of Martin McGuinness becoming First Minister, you see it in review of plays such as The Big Fellah
Of course Irish history and Irish republicanism have their share of myth. But the English and in some instances Irish habit of seeing Irish nationalism as uniquely steeped in myth is a holier-than-thou habit based on an obvious lie.